Xavier Littlejohn on the Pitt campus in a black jacket
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Just 3% of teens from Pennsylvania’s foster system go to college. This Pitt program aims to change that.

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Xavier Littlejohn didn’t think college was part of his future.

Sure, he had the grades and desire to go, but for teens who have spent time in the child welfare system, as Littlejohn has, the calculations are different. Not only do they have to worry about the typical things, like paying tuition and making friends, but they also need to consider obstacles most student never think about, like finding a place to stay when campus housing closes.

“I didn’t see college as an option,” Littlejohn says.

That is, until his aunt introduced him to an educational liaison. The liaison, an employee of Allegheny County, helped Littlejohn find the resources he needed to answer his questions, secure financial aid and set him on a path toward his degree.

Today, Littlejohn is a sophomore at Pitt and an aspiring social worker who hopes to someday shake up the system from within. But first, he wants to help other Pitt students realize what he almost didn’t — college is for anyone who wants it.

He’s joined forces with Daren Ellerbee, director of Pitt’s Educational Outreach Center (EOC), to spread the word about a new program for students just like him.

The Horizon Scholars Program is designed to provide comprehensive support — including financial assistance and mentorship — to Pitt students on all campuses who have experience with the child welfare system. Led by the EOC and the Office of the Provost in conjunction with the School of Public Health, School of Social Work and Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, the program’s goal is to reach, retain and graduate these students by helping them overcome distinct challenges, among them: funding gaps, housing insecurity and mental health support.

“Getting to college is one thing, but getting through is another,” Ellerbee says.

Ellerbee is the daughter of a social worker and once worked as a court-appointed special advocate, so she’s intimately familiar with the child welfare system and the roadblocks it throws into students’ paths. According to a recent study by The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research, more than 80% of 17- and 18-year-olds in the Pennsylvania foster system say they want to attend college, but only about 3% actually do.

And unless they tap into federal financial aid for students aging out of the foster system, even those in the 3% can be difficult to locate on campus. Many do not self-identify, hoping to avoid any stigma attached to their circumstances.

Ellerbee believes the benefits of the Horizon Scholars Program will outweigh those concerns. Students who are accepted into the program are surrounded with support, from funds to assist with food, books and housing to help carrying boxes on move-in day. Plus, they have a built-in cohort of peers who are experiencing similar challenges.

The EOC is currently crowdfunding through Engage Pitt to raise the $25,000 necessary for the program to be endowed. In the meantime, Ellerbee is focused on the student she calls her “first Horizon Scholar” — Littlejohn. She is his unwavering advocate and his boss, having hired him to work in the EOC office. (“He’s never getting rid of me,” she jokes.) They are on a collective mission to locate all the other Pitt students who could benefit from the Horizon Scholars Program and begin providing the care and resources necessary for success.

“Our goal is to get these students to and through college,” Ellerbee says. “I’ll do whatever it takes to reach that goal.”


— April Johnston